Storm drill uncovers flaws

Jun 6, 2008

St. Petersburg Times--June 5, 2008

By Barbara Behrendt, Times Staff Writer

BROOKSVILLE — With powerful Category 3 Hurricane Herb barrelling down on the west coast of Florida on Wednesday afternoon, Hernando County’s emergency managers were in deep trouble.

Before they could begin to defend against Herb’s 125-mph winds and the 14-foot storm surge heading for the coast, they had a more immediate problem to solve: How to log into their computer program.

Good thing it was only a drill, albeit a serious statewide exercise of counties’ ability to deal with a disaster.

It took so long to access the locally created software that Hernando County emergency management officials never got to practice much of the leadup, shelter opening and evacuation exercises that the annual hurricane drill is designed to test.

On Thursday, County Administrator David Hamilton was not pleased.

"I got a little concerned yesterday,” he said, adding that he will meet next week with county emergency management officials "to be reassured that we’re ready” for real emergencies, especially as the hurricane season gets under way.

Hamilton arrived at the drill a bit late on Wednesday and was surprised to learn of the computer problems. He said he has seen similar drills run smoothly, but the exercise "didn’t go all that well.”

He will meet with interim emergency management director Mark Tobert and Cecilia Patella, hazard mitigation coordinator, for what he termed a frank discussion about the county’s readiness.

"It could have gone better,” Tobert admitted Thursday of the exercise.

The problem with the computer software was multifaceted, he said. It was designed by former manager Tom Leto, who was fired last month, and another former employee. The software had not been loaded onto the main computer in the room at the Emergency Operations Center where all the agencies gather to manage a storm response.

The current emergency management staff has had little practice with the software system, which has never been tested in an emergency, and neither have many of the representatives from other agencies. The staffs made a list of issues they have with the software and Tobert said he has contacted the county’s information technology specialists to make improvements.

In addition, he will ask Hamilton during upcoming budget discussions to purchase one of the two emergency management software packages used by counties around Florida. That would give Hernando a "battle tested” system that can communicate with other counties.

Tobert said the officials gathered for the drill were able to run through several scenarios of the aftermath of a dangerous storm.

His staff would contact various agency representatives in the EOC and give them a problem to solve, such as asking Animal Services to deal with a pack of wild coyotes terrorizing a neighborhood or asking the fire department to battle a fire at the Bayport Inn when all roads leading there were flooded.

He also said his people are ready to deal with the real thing even if it meant resorting to pre-computer methods of gathering data and delivering critical information. "It’s not something that would inhibit our ability to take care of the public,” he said.

Meanwhile, Hamilton and Sheriff Richard Nugent are exploring transferring emergency management functions from the county to the sheriff. Hamilton said Thursday, however, that it might be too much to expect such a switch to be done during the hurricane season.

He said that the county "has some things to tweak” before handing over the operation, if that is ultimately the County Commission’s decision. "The public is not going to care” who is in charge as long as they are protected in a disaster, Hamilton said.